Sunday, March 19, 2006

Kansas City Parade: History and Violence

The Kansas City St. Patrick's Day Parade began 33 years ago with a small band of brothers marching from one bar to another. Now, organizers cling to the tradition even as violence flies in the face of the steps they've taken to make it more family-oriented. It begins earlier than it used to. The parade committee installed barriers to keep the crowd out of the path of floats and vehicles. This year, the parade even had a Walt Disney theme.

Still, according to Kansas City Star reports, 10 fights broke out, two men were arrested for aggravated assault, one for carrying a concealed weapon and one for narcotics possession. Shots were fired. People beat up a family in a parking lot. Police almost shot a kid carrying a toy but real-looking gun.

Who knows what incites this type of violence at a parade? A couple years ago, gunfire at the event sparked efforts on the part of the parade committee to make it more family-friendly. Some people thought the parade should be cancelled.

Should a parade be cancelled if violence occurs? Is tradition a good reason to keep it going? To the families who have floats in the parade, maybe it is. For tradition's sake, I like to go to the parade, and my family's not even in it.

When we were little, my mom would take my brothers and me downtown to the parade on the city bus. It was like a school bus on the way to a field trip, only with grownups singing intead of kids. I remember one lady standing and swaying at the front of the bus, leading the passengers in Irish songs like the "Yellow Rose of Texas." Wait a second...that wasn't an Irish song. I think that woman might have been drunk.

At that time, the only danger at the parade was some drunkard burning you with a cigarette or spilling beer on your lederhosen. (For some reason, my mom would dress me in an Irish sweater and lederhosen, and as we marched in the parade, grownups would heckle me for wearing German clothes.)

This year, my family went and had fun until we wove our way through the crowd on the way to our car and saw two arrests, two police officers running after something and a guy yell at the police who were just trying to help him cross the street, "Get your hands off me!" It does make you worry that if a shot was fired--even in the air--it could hit one of your kids.

Until then, the kids enjoyed all the Mickey and Minnie mouses marching by, and the Marching Cobras, some of whom wore snake heads. I liked the radio station with the Chiefs themed Elvis and the various portrayals of Snow White and the Seven Leprechauns.

Suggestion for shortening the parade next year: The seemingly thousands of convertible-riding city, state and county politicians all ride on one float. With the right seating arrangement and hidden microphones broadcasting what they are saying between clenched and smiling teeth, this float could win best in show. Heck, they don't even need microphones. With the current hands-on political climate, someone could just hand the officials boxing gloves and debate topics.

My boys, who are more like gas than solids, bouncing off whatever holds them in, had a hard time standing still. They'd bump into the other kids standing in the front row and that caused some problems. Also, Johnny, 5, kept reaching into another lady's stroller looking for food and drinks. Because, you know, I don't feed my children. It's not like Johnny ate five sweet rolls that morning at my cousin Chris's party.

"Our stroller looks just like yours," I explained to the woman.

"Does it?" she asked, in a skeptical voice.

Was she implying that my son was a thief?

"Listen, lady," I said. "If my kid was a crook, do you think I'd let him waste his time stealing wet wipes and animal cracker crumbs from your pram? Please, there are enough suits down here to pick pocket a lifetime supply of cash. Not to mention breathmints."

No, not really. Because that is how parade violence happens.

After we passed the live Cops! show, we crossed over to Main Street. My dad pointed out the old Tom Pendergast office, a house-sized yellow brick builing nuzzled between five-story buildings.

"That's a little building for a big boss," I said.

"That's what he was about," my dad said. "Helping the little guy."

Pendergast, whose gambling addiction led to his downfall later in life, ran Kansas City's political machine for a long time. He didn't actually hold office, but he got people elected. During prohibition, he made sure nothing was actually prohibited. If anything Kansas City went through an Uninhibition Era. Basically, Pendergast knew how to pull strings, which I'm sure doesn't happen in politics anymore. Just ask all those guys in convertibles.

Anyway, he got out the democratic vote, as they say now. And he didn't need a Rock the Vote concert to do it. Instead, when people stood in line at that little brick building and asked him for help, he helped them. For instance, he gave poor people coal in the winter.

"If you do something nice like that for people, they'll vote for you for the rest of their lives," my dad said.

Pendergast, was, by the way a Kansas City Irishman. He went from running a bar down by the river to running a city, part of a proud Irish tradition Pat O'Neill writes about in his book "From the Bottom Up."

When you think about it, you can see why the parade, a symbol of that tradition, means so much.

However, for a kinder gentler event further south on Grand, my cousin Chris and his wife Emily held the first annual Brewster-Hiley-Hair-Jones, etc. parade during their St. Patty's Day breakfast this year. They passed out little Irish flags and some of the kids decorated their bikes and big wheels. Cars honked as the kids peddled and scooted their way around the bend onto the Trolley Track Trail. Everybody loves a children's parade.

Then the grownups helped the kids uphill from Brookside Boulevard, a steep incline that used to be the bluffs of a creek. Most said they weren't going down to the big parade this year. It was too cold and they'd already been to the Brookside Parade a week before.

Chris asked Johnny to be the grand marshall, which is right up his alley. Richie was the caboose. In his typically sunny outlook, he looked at all the kids a block ahead of us and then at the empty sidewalk behind us and said, "Look how far we went."

Very far, indeed. Happy St. Patrick's Day, Kansas City's Irish.


Anonymous Pat said...

Wonderful! Just your style - a belly laugh in the middle and a grabbing tear at the end.
Nice plug for Pat O.
I love the gas/solid comparison of your children - very funny! And Johnny lifting animal cracers - funny story!

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